Unfortunately for the Bruins, they had just one exhibition game this week to figure things out with round-robin and playoff games already starting for them this weekend.
The good news for the Black and Gold? They already may have figured out that 21-year-old rookie forward Jack Studnicka is an option as he looks like he belongs amidst the Bruins search for a top-6 secondary scoring answer.
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Studnicka didn’t crack the score sheet in Boston’s limp 4-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night at the Toronto bubble at Scotiabank Arena, but he looked quite at home skating on the right wing with David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk. That was a welcome development after a promising Phase 3 training camp where he looked ready for prime time while getting top-6 reps with both David Pastrnak and Ondrej Kase missing in action.
Understandably, the B’s top prospect looked a little hesitant right out of the starting gate, but he ended with some of the best scoring chances in a game with few Boston highlights.
There were some details still to be ironed out and eventually the Bruins are going to want offensive finish from a guy who led the P-Bruins in goal-scoring this past season, but they certainly seem to believe they have something cooking with Studnicka.
“He certainly had some of our better chances. He didn’t finish, but I thought he played well,” said Cassidy about Studnicka. “He was willing to go to the net and go to the dirty areas. Shooting versus passing, that’s just something he’s going to have to learn at this level. Those are both things he does well. The more he plays in this league, the more he’ll be able to figure that out. He does have a good shot and release, so we’re going to encourage it. We want him to play his game.
“I thought he made a couple of soft plays on his backhand and guys in the NHL with their sticks are just too good. Those are tough to make. But for the most part he did his job and got some opportunities to score.”
At least a couple of times throughout the evening, Studnicka got in close for quality scoring chances after Krejci set him up with slick passes, and he finished with three shots on net in 13:40 of ice time. It was clear the playmaking veteran center and the 21-year-old rookie already have pretty good two-man chemistry going, and Studnicka also managed to do a solid job winning board battles and making the little plays to complement Krejci and the speedy DeBrusk.
Studnicka admitted following the game that his comfort level at the NHL has grown exponentially from almost a year ago at Boston’s training camp, and that heightened comfort level was readily apparent on the ice.
“I definitely felt stronger on the puck and more comfortable. It just felt like another hockey game to me out there,” said Studnicka. “In the past my nerves might have kicked in and stuff like that. I definitely felt good. I think I’ve done a good job to prepare for this moment, so my body felt good out there.
“I thought our first two shifts were some of the better ones of the game. It got us into the game, we were cycling the puck and had a lot of O-zone [time]. We read off each other really well, and you just need to be ready to [receive] the puck and get to the net when you’re playing with [Krejci]. For our first game together, I’m definitely happy.”
Certainly, there will be more future competition for the second line right wing gig once Kase has rejoined the team and is ready to play at some point in the postseason. Bruce Cassidy has already confirmed, though, that Kase won’t just automatically get his job back if one of the younger players flourishes in the meantime. Right on cue, Studnicka took a big first step in last night’s exhibition appearance toward claiming a top-6 role by doing just about everything right.
Now he’ll get more chances during round-robin play against bigger, better competition around the Eastern Conference.
Next comes the challenging part for rookies like Studnicka, though. He’ll need to maintain that level of play in a totally unique Stanley Cup Playoff experience while the stakes and intensity just keep elevating for the youngster along with the rest of the Bruins.